Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Confronting Death

Throughout our reading and discussion of Heidegger, the issue of death as our only singularized experience and one that we will be unable to know seemed hard for me to grasp. On a day to day basis, the thought of death rarely plays a role in my decision making. The logic seems right- that if we consider our death and the limitation of time, our decisions will be to better our life and try to make it as meaningful as possible. Yet the focus on death, the importance of that decision, and the angst that Heidegger speaks of would make it hard to find the happiness derived from that decision or the joy of the single moment.

This idea of death made me start thinking about the movie Meet Joe Black. In the film, Bill Parish leads an extraordinary life. He is head of a multi million dollar corporation, he has a loving family, and the means to fund just about any desire. Coming into his 65th birthday, Parish receives a visitor: Death. Death, Joe, has taken form as a human being. In return for a chance to experience life, Joe will grant Parish more time to live. The movie is a great example of the extreme angst that comes with the idea of death and weighing one’s options. Parish resembles the authentic being. He is staring at Death in the face and recognizes his days and decisions are limited. In the beginning, Parish acts bitter and hateful towards Death, which I believe is a cover to hide the anxiety of the end.

If I were to think of death’s possibility, there would put a lot of pressure on a single decision, whether it be big or small. In the reaction to those decisions, I don’t feel that I would be content with any decision. First, I feel that it would be hard to find satisfaction in the decision that was made. There would be the constant thought and search for something better or greater that could potentially enhance ones life more than the final decision. Second, I feel that I would struggle to accept the decision without looking back. One would be more likely to regret the outcome if it turned for the worse rather than focusing on the issue and learning from the experience. In the movie, Parish conducts his life without the idea of death present in his decisions. Yet in the end, finds courage to leave his mark and his company as signifiers of his life that may not have happened otherwise. It made me wonder whether the idea of death had to be present in order for people to find that courage and whether or not it was a good thing to think about on a daily basis.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Whenever I think about Nietzsche’s idea of the “Übermensch” I can’t help but also think about the comic book character Superman. As one of the common translations of “Übermensch” is “Superman” this connection I’ve made may seem obvious; but Superman presents an interesting and ironic interpretation of Nietzsche’s “Übermensch.” Superman is presented as superior in every way to the humans he lives with and yet he adheres to their moral code. What is most interesting is that in the first Superman story, called The Reign of the Superman, Superman was actually originally conceived as an immoral villain by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and was in fact inspired by the Nazi interpretation of Nietzsche’s “Übermensch” in that he was a super-powered being who was not bound by the laws or moral code of lesser being and did what he wanted. It wasn’t until later that he was re-imagined as the rigidly moral good guy that most people know him as. Superman is a being that could actually do anything he truly has absolute free will and is not truly bound by any laws even the physical laws of the world he inhabits and yet he still obeys the morals laws of the herd. So, why would a perfect being who could do anything it wanted possibly lower itself to the moral code of the herd?


I may have this jumbled in my head, but I have a problem with Heidegger's position on death being the only singular experience humans have. How do we know it's singular? We cannot relate our experience to others after it happens, so it seems a bit weird to assume that we die in a way no other person has died. Take plane crashes, for example. Every person in the crash dies the same way; their thoughts will probably differ (from "I should have lived more fully" to "Now I can never have sex again") they all physically die in the same way. Another point is that every single person dies, so how does that make it a singular experience if we all have the same end? It seems silly to say everyone lives the same way yet dies individually.
I would like to believe that the thing that makes me different from anyone else are my particular experiences. There are definite times in everyone's life where the person realizes that this is life, or that this is living, whether it be in a hospital awaiting news or driving through a countryside. When these shocking moments happen, it seems like you consciously recognize You- your life, your thought-process; you being You. This kind of lead my thought-process to Jimi Hendrix's song "If 6 Was 9," when he says "I'm the one who decides when it's time for me to die/ so let me live my life the way I want to".

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Talk About Hamming It Up...

From the reading I’ve noticed that Heidegger, along with many other Western thinkers of all sorts, really likes and subscribes to the idea that humans are special. Usually really special. The definition of “Da-sein” we used in class was “a being that has its own being as an issue.” It seems very evident to me that Heidegger only includes humans as qualifying in that category. This strikes me as a closed-minded or at least noticeably biased view. We touched on this a little bit in class, but we didn’t expound upon it that much. I see this belief asserted fairly often in one form or another, and I see it as kind of ridiculous. I think that being able to produce as a species iPods, 7-11’s and weapons of mass destruction has little bearing on our ability or lack thereof to contemplate our own existence. Now, I’m sure that trees don’t have much of anything akin to a consciousness, but I think it’s more reasonable to infer that other animals have some kind of cognizance of the fact that they are than that they don’t. We see animals of all kinds communicate in often incredibly complex ways, yet we don’t give much significance to what they might be saying, primarily I think because we have no way in hell of knowing most of the time. And we don’t like to talk about things we don’t know much about. There are plenty of other species that scientists and the like have determined through one method or another that they have a fairly high degree of intelligence—that lady in Africa taught sign-language to chimpanzees and gorillas, dolphins have been observed to play practical jokes on each other. If they are capable of that kind of sophisticated thinking, what precludes them from taking their own state of being into consideration? I would be really excited to talk to a giraffe about life or a goose about das-Man (das-Goose?). Something tells me that an elephant would make a decent philosopher. That would be so cool. I’m sure one of these days some scientist somewhere is going to figure a semi-coherent way to communicate with at least some animals on that level. I don’t know how it would affect my love of steak if a cow told me about having a bovine existential crisis. At very least I would raise an eyebrow and philosophize between bites of ribeye.

Chaos or Stagnation

Heidegger, as a philosopher, is indubitably a fan of meditative thinking. This is obvious from the reading. However, it is important to stress the importance and relevance of a healthy combination of both meditative and calculative thinking, because they both complement each other very nicely. While it is true that meditative can exist independent of calculative thinking, it would be of little use, as there would be no organization or structure for it to flow into the world and benefit society. On the other hand, calculative thinking cannot exist or at the very least progress without meditative thinking which is a very good reason for Heidegger to emphasize the latter.
It is important to not deviate from the combination of the two. When used in conjunction, they can perpetuate progress and fine tune anything in the world. However, overuse of either would surely have negative repercussions and should be avoided. Focusing too much on calculative thinking as a society would create a very stagnant, but orderly society, perhaps ripe for a totalitarian regime. Nothing new is introduced, people are encouraged to continue thinking within the preset parameters or not think at all, continuing the status quo and hiding any alternatives. Realistically, such a society cannot exist, as it is hard if not impossible to dictate human thought. In practice, the ones in power diminish the importance of meditative thinking and reduce it to indolence as to avoid the inevitable spring of ideas that are to arise out of it that are counter to the society’s current ideology.
Abusing meditative thinking and ignoring calculative thinking can also have fairly dire consequences. There would be no order or organization and the ideas produced or conclusions reached would not be able to be put into practice, as there would be no way of reproducing them. While the individuals would be very “enlightened,” society as a whole would be flirting with extinction. There would be no collective progress and nothing would function beyond the individual level. Hypothetically, not even communication would occur as it itself requires calculative thinking in that we must use a commonly accepted structure to communicate, we simply cannot meditate into expression successfully beyond a basic level.
I don’t know which is worse, but I do know that nothing can start without meditative thinking. Once that is initiated it is up to calculative thinking to commence and perpetuate the great ideas thought up within meditative thinking. While I agree that meditative thinking is important I would be hesitant to promote one over the other, as without a combination of the two, we would have chaos or stagnation, which are both equally terrible.

Finding Strength when "God is dead"

Nietzsche's "God is dead" projects the idea that we have killed Him and now have to create our own values and morals, which he says is the most life affirming thing. He says that the "herd" mentality is having all the same morals and values as other under God, leveling everyone off. This brings up the question of if He ever existed at all, or maybe we just thought he was alive, as a way to sort of justify morals and values without having to create our own. With the idea of God being dead, another question is raised on how people will react to this statement. Some will be prepared to create their own values, again the most life-affirming thing, and be self-reliant, whereas others, the herd, will completely fall apart and not know how to live (a very slavish thing). As we discussed, they were so dependent on this "manufactured morality" under which the masses served to, that they do not have the strength that is so great as to be able to create their own morals.

When we first discussed this in class, I first thought that the "God is dead" statement would have gone in a different direction. I thought that another direction it could have taken is thinking about it in the point of view of these strong, devout, believers in God. With these people, if someone says that "God is dead" I would think that first of all they wouldn't, at least immediately, believe it and if they did, its not like they would completely fall apart. I feel like people who were strong in religious practice and devout believers in God would be strong enough to keep the morals and values that they found vital. They lived their lives according to these values and morals and attached their own meanings to them to adjust to their individual self. So, I almost think that being able to keep the values that they found in God and not completely letting go of them just because God might be "dead" to some people is just as "strong" as being able to create your own morals. I would think that the strongest believers in God at the time would be able to build on this "manufactured morality" and make it adjust to their own lives, even without a God. I understand that these morals would be nothing without God, i suppose, but being able to uphold the morals even without and being able to again, build on them according to each individual life, is being strong as well. I almost think it is unfair to say that these people would be trying to depend on a God that's already dead because that is how they were able to create their morals--I guess that's still herdish, but is it herdish still if they can apply these morals and if these morals are generally good for their own everyday life? If they truly believe His morals are how they want to live their own personal lives, and can adjust accordingly, would it even matter if God was dead or alive? Again, is it just as strong to be able to keep the same morals even "without" God?

Authenticity and Values

In the selection from Being and Time, Heidegger claims that Da-sein is the they to the point at which it assimilates the inherited values of the they, society's cultural baggage. Da-sein experiences acculturation by which it comes to know itself; it knows itself as how the they constituted it. Specific prejudices are given to Da-sein in an unreflective transmission of the they, and a part of these biases, in specific relation to humans of the West, is the Plato-Descartes-Kant tradition in philosophy, a willingness to play a specific language game. In class, Charlotte argued that Da-sein referred to humans, but I suppose Heidegger's reason for never equating "Da-sein" to "humanity" is his prerogative to create a new vocabulary for inquiry into existence, to break with the willingness to use a specific vocabulary in describing experience. The they claims to have privileged information about the world, the correct vocabulary that everyone should learn. Perhaps sometimes the they proclaims what is useful, something directly related to our facticity. An example would be my mother (and others) telling me how bankruptcy lawyers are needed today, as another mode of persuasion of me to follow the herd into law school. But this is not authentically "I."

Perhaps a different way of recognizing Heidegger's characterization of "the they" is to be found in Dewey. He states that our life experiences are "already overlaid and saturated with the products of the reflection of past generations and by-gone ages." This amounts to our inherited morality which Nietzsche critiques as "slavish" and that we, for the most part, accept as the norm. Bringing together Nietzsche's critique of slave morality with Kierkegaard and Heidegger's disappointment with each unreflective generation, "the revaluation of all values" is the end result of a philosophical attitude toward life. Picking apart the various prejudices we inherit from our social positions is what amounts to the examined life of which Socrates stressed the importance. What Heidegger is suggesting is not wholesale discarding of our preferences as socially defined and thus untenable, but the Nietzschean revaluation seems to be the medium through which one achieves authenticity of self. This equates to treating our notion of death with the utmost scrutiny, rather than accepting the they's projection of "untroubled indifference toward the most extreme possibility" of existence. While commensurability between these various philosophers' notions of critical thinking may be impossible, together they seem to be acknowledging the same overall structure of existence, one in which a person can consciously choose to live authentically, to be self-reflective,to point out one's major influences in order to accept or deny them.

Morality is Natural

I have a problem with Nietzsche saying that the next step for humans is to lose their conscience. That we are need to lose our sense of morality and our need of a higher being to evolve. Nietzsche says that having a sense of morality is unnatural, that animals do not have morality and that humans will soon lose it as well. Well looking at it from a Utilitarian point of view, morality is the most natural thing of all. A utilitarian like Bentham says that we are guided by pleasure and pain. We naturally seek pleasure, and naturally we avoid pain. Mankind creates rules and morality so that we can maximize pleasure and minimize pain, we just made the rules universal. We make rules like never steal or kill so that society can function, and we can enjoy things like computers and IPods. Animals share the feelings of pleasure and pain. A wolf knows that it is bad to attack another member of the pack because it will lose its own personal security. Morality is something we created as a defense mechanism so that we can function in society and maximize pleasure. In our world we stress people not to do certain things, like don’t steal and don’t kill, we do not tell people how to actually live their life. Our moral rules do not say that people have to be lawyers when they grow up. This demonstrates that our morality is a set of rules so that we may all pursue our own happiness. Nietzsche might say that a strong man wouldn’t care about morality and do whatever pleased him, however it would not be practical for anyone to do so, it is too hard to scrape by a living that way. Sometimes it pays when people play the game so everyone can flourish.

If you grant me the idea that pleasure and pain are natural motivations for animals, this will not be too far of a stretch. Utilitarianism can also explain the reason why people want a higher power. Having faith in an all knowing god that will provide eternal happiness is a comforting feeling. Even if God is just something mankind made up, it is something we made up in our pursuit of happiness. The idea of a higher being will give people comfort in death and allow people to cope with pain better. The idea of god would therefore be considered natural because of the natural forces of pleasure and pain. Regardless of whether or not god exist objectively, it still can be practical to believe in one.


As we discussed in class, we are all guilty of a reliance on "they." "They say it's going to rain today," or "they say jogging every day is good for you," is acceptable every day language. We heed these words as if we have any idea just who "they" represents. The problem with this is that we don't know who "they" are. This proverbial speech has no identity. As Heidegger would put it, it is something everyone says but no one says, all at once. This inevitably leads to mediocrity because they never discuss anything profound. Never have I heard on of these statements predict Armageddon or discuss the parameters of justice. Surely claims such as this would have a specific author; an individual is responsible for this type of thought. In other words, they are limited to things upon which everyone agrees. This causes what Heidegger calls a "leveling down," to the least common intellectual denominator. The anonymous nature of "they" ultimately leads to unaccountability as well as ephemeral and, what Heidegger would consider, unimportant information, therefore limiting us as individuals.
So why do we invest in such language? Why are we drawn in by this indefinable concept? Heidegger even argues that we lose ourselves in the "they." It would seem that we are all guilty of this by convenience. We run towards the "they" like herded sheep because it is easy. And the ultimate irony is that we can never be they. So why do we listen?


The other day in class someone, I believe it was Sam, asked whether someone could be born without a conscience. I found this question terribly interesting and I have been mulling it over in my mind the past couple of days. If someone was, in fact, born without a conscience, what would that mean for their humanity? Surely it would change the manner in which we, as philosophers, consider their actions and their motives. This train of thought led me to question whether we make too many assumptions when talking about humans and how we operate. Isn’t it a bit too presumptuous to assume that we can talk about all humans in a general manner? It's nice to think we can relate to all other people based on their humanity, as one does when they use the phrase “they’re people just like us”, but this idea presents problems. Obviously everyone is different, individual and unique, but do these differences only apply to our personalities etc.? Just as a person with a physical birth defect is different from one without, it should be possible for a person to be born with a “defect” of a less physical nature that might interfere with their moral capacity. In this way, an individual might appear to have the same ability for thought as any other average person, when they actually have a deficiency that prevents them from thinking morally or ethically. Every other day I hear of someone doing something which I fail to even begin to comprehend how their action could be thought of as right. Even worse than this are the people who perform a vile act and state that they knew it wasn’t the right thing but did it anyway. How do you do something that you know isn’t right, especially in relation to another person’s liberties, and think that’s ok? Maybe I’m missing something here. Is it fair to say there is something more than doing the moral and just thing? In my mind the most important goal is to act morally and follow the golden rule and it is very difficult for me to violate that. However, it appears as though other people are able to bypass this idea and do whatever they perceive is best for them self and to hell with everyone else. Am I the one with the deficiency because I fail to understand how one could operate in this manner? I would like to think this is not true, but it is difficult to grasp when it seems like the people who violate the golden rule tend to profit from, while I try to do what is right, regardless of what position it puts me in. So do we assume too much that all us humans can get along and operate together? Life isn’t a puzzle where every piece fits together perfectly so there are always going to be clashes between thought patterns.

Nietzsche in John Carpenter's They Live


In the cult classic They Live (88), John Carpenter tells the story of one man, Nada, who accidentally stumbles across the product of a secret cult of mysterious sunglass makers: sunglasses. Upon wearing them, Nada sees the truth of the world: blank billboards that read "eat, sleep, reproduce" and magazines that order everyday citizens to "spend, spend" and that "money is your God." Apparently, the world has been taken over by aliens that code their messages so that what we see as normal billboards and magazines are really propaganda convincing us all to become, as Nietzsche would say, part of a herd.

Nada, in a sense, becomes Nietzsche's "Übermensch." He is the one man, aided by his special sunglasses, that starts the movement against these intruders. During one of the movie's finest moments, the 7-8 minute fight scene (which can be found here; if you have the time, I highly recommend watching it), Nada fights Frank, a man symbolizing the herd altogether.

During our discussions about Nietzsche, my mind kept coming back to this movie. Nada's fight against the aliens, and in addition, the herd itself, sort of related to a second slave revolt in morality. Nada's "will to power" underlines the existentialist undertones throughout the entire movie, culminating in one of the finest lines in the movie: "I came here to chew bubble gum and kick ass... and I'm all out of bubble gum."

Thoughts on Thoughts

After our first class on Heidegger, I did not entirely agree with the concepts that we went over. This disagreement was somewhat resolved after our second class discussion and further reading, but I still somewhat disagree with one concept.

We have said since the beginning of this class that our ownmost possibility, that one solitary aspect of our lives that is entirely our own, is our death. I agree with the explanation that the world cannot experience it the way we do, and we can't tell about it. Additionally, we aren't even entirely sure that we experience it at all, since none of us can come back and explain the experience. I know that Cole brought up the question "so what if we all drink the punch?" in class, which I still haven't quite wrapped my head around.

The part that I can disagree with is that this is our only ownmost possibility. We all have our own individual experiences, thoughts, memories, emotions, and interactions. I agree that these things are very easily influenced by the rest of the world. However, I think we should be able to count the entire combination of these experiences, thoughts, memories, emotions, interactions, etc. as another very individual entity. I'm sure somebody will comment about the fact that even this melting pot is not our own, but is influenced and changed by people around us. I know that Heidegger would definitely disagree with me.

One of the things about us that I find absolutely fascinating is thought. Regardless of how well I know somebody, I can never know what they are thinking at that exact moment, and they cannot know what I'm thinking. Our thoughts move so fast that I don't think it would be possible to try to communicate those thoughts. I don't want to get too off-topic with my general worldview, but I also don’t think it is possible to completely convey who you are as a person to anybody else. Nobody else can ever know exactly what you have been through, whether you choose to try to tell them or not. I find this to be comforting in some ways, but mostly I enjoy wondering how other people see the world, and what they remember most vividly. This is also the reason that I have decided that I could never be a neurosurgeon—I don’t think I can know enough about our brains and minds during my career for me to be comfortable poking around in there.

I would love to hear some other opinions on this, since I don't think that I have fully grasped Heidegger yet. As I said in class, I do not want to avoid questions or concepts that I find hard to understand.

Oh Nietzche, how you plague me so.

“I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar” (94).

My gut reaction: um, what? You have to understand, as an English major, such a proclamation as the one Nietzsche puts forth is no small pill for me to swallow. Now, I’d love to call upon the hallmarks of persuasion and argue against Nietzsche with all the pomp and splendor of proper rhetoric that would make the professors in the English department swell with pride, but quite frankly, I’m tired. So I’m just going to get right down to it.

Throughout the excerpt from “Twilight of the Idols,” Nietzsche argues against the philosophers and moralists who came before him, dismissing their ideologies as “dangerous” (96) and mere “fiction” (96) that holds no more intrinsic truth than the very ideas they so mistakenly purport as objectively “true.” In this sense, Nietzsche engages in what Herald Bloom identifies as the anxiety of influence, in that he rails against the standing order of philosophy and those who constructed it, using every avenue possible to tear it down, demolish it, in order to establish his own set of constructions in its place. But more on that in another post.

What really struck me was the way in which Nietzsche intertwines the Platonic mode of thought with the biblical sense of becoming, of being formed within the image of something higher. Such a deduction does not seem far-fetched, however, once one compares the Platonic understanding of ourselves in relation to “the real” with the religious comprehension of mankind to God. Everyone can recall Plato’s fable of the cave with the forms encompassing what is “real,” the shadows of the forms forming our comprehension of what is “real,” and ourselves being the product of this second-hand revelation of what lies beyond. Conversely, in the Christian tradition, God (the “real”) makes himself known through His son and His son’s teachings (echoes of the “real”), from which we, the humble disciples, learn from and form our understanding of the Lord. If such is the case, then can it be said that given Nietzsche’s viewpoint that Plato sits at the head of the “wretched” (94) positivism that informs modern philosophy, perhaps when Nietzsche refers to “God,” he actually means Plato and not the biblical God? And if such a hypothesis can be granted, what ramifications would this conclusion have on Nietzsche’s infamous proclamation, “God is dead”?

An Entheogenic Theology

An Entheogenic Theology

Originally, I had attended to write concerning the extent to which Paul Dano accurately portrays Nietzsche’s teachings in Little Miss Sunshine. Upon watching the video included in Jordan’s post, entitled “Heidegger,” I attempted to write a brief comment in response to his post; however, in watching the video, I found myself incapable of writing a short response, and I realized that I was much more interested in the aspect of human nature and instinct that the video revealed rather than in writing about some impersonal indie movie.

I’m not quite sure how to respond to the video, which is one among 85,800 other videos that have been posited under the search term, “near death experience” on Youtube. After discussing Kierkegaard’s Teleological Suspension of the Ethical, and especially after writing a blog post concerning the same principal, I wanted to be open-minded and consider this man’s particular experience with the absolute. But where do we draw the line? Why is it that we are much more inclined to give attention to someone relaying a religious near death experience about angels, but we would immediately discredit someone who claimed that the after life is a meadow made of marshmallows, surrounded by a crop of yellow elephants growing out of the ground that are tended to by guardian lawn gnomes who have to support their subterranean families with agriculture because the economy has hurt the profit margins of Travelocity? The particular is meant to be entirely personal and wholly impossible for those tied to the ethical to comprehend, and yet there is a specific breed of the particular that we choose to heed with a minimal sense of bias. Both “visions” (or whatever terminology you care to use) could be viewed as equally particular or hallucinatory, but somehow religious “visions” are given much more credence (or at least, heard in a much less pejorative manner). Also, it is only when someone has either been very near death or has claimed to have been brought back from death, that it is usually viewed as a particular experience these days. However, if one were to smoke DMT (which, incidentally, is a chemical released right before death), one would be fairly likely to have a similar “vision.” Although, the vision could even be exactly the same, one of an angel passing one’s judgment, I don’t think anyone would consider that to be that person’s particular experience with the absolute. So it seems very strange to me that we souldn’t regard other “visions” as any more miraculous than such because in all likelihood, the visionary, prophet, religious nutjob, etc. was purely tripping, having been administered a heavy dose of dimethyltryptamine by his pineal gland.

In order to make my argument more forceful, I call upon the prophetic words of Joe Rogan, who is not at all mentally challenged. The countless Emmys he has received for his roles in both The Man Show and Fear Factor alike evidence his insight and intellect. Enjoy.

A Reflection on a Childhood Experience

Growing up in my family, religious autonomy wasn’t simply stressed, it was practiced. My mother did her best never force her religious beliefs on my siblings or me. While, this was a good thing, we were still raised Christian, after all, we had very little freedom in terms of our social and moral conduct. Our complete understanding of ‘right and wrong’ had been a construct of what the Bible said was acceptable. It wasn’t until I became aware of the absolute, death, that I started to challenge the values I had been raised on. A close cousin of mine, Brian, died from a heart attack at the age of eighteen when I was fourteen. Although his death came as a major shock to me due to his age, I recall being more stunned by my mother’s reaction. I had been raised to believe that death was good. When someone died who lived a healthy, peaceful, and God fearing life, that person would essentially be ‘guaranteed’ a spot in heaven, the ultimate salvation from pain. So, why was my mother reacting so out-of-character for someone who truly believed in this? This question haunted me everyday for months, until I came to the conclusion that her religion prescribed this reaction.

Religion, more specifically Christianity, prescribes to us that many life affirming values, as Nietzsche would say, aren’t good because they are a part of the masses. So, in regards to the aforesaid story, my mom’s conclusion was that, Brian died because God ‘willed it’. What she meant by this was that, God was so benevolent that he took Brian away from the world because his future was potentially promising. Had God not done this, his enemies may have had been too great for him to handle, and the bad could have potentially overwhelmed him.

The conclusion that my mother and her religious friends came to frustrated me beyond comprehension. I questioned rather rationality had anything to do with beliefs, and determined that it didn’t. That is when I lost my faith, and began to see things in a similar fashion to Nietzsche. Being said, I had never read Nietzsche until class, but his idea of slavish values being linked to religion is something I had always thought about, I just wasn’t able to vocalize my thoughts in as clear and concise of a manner as he. This doesn’t leave me with some criticisms of Nietzsche’s philosophy though; in his, “The Genealogy of Morals” he presents what life affirming principles should be but also makes it impossible to truly possess these Noble values, citing the ancients as the last to have them. I simply can’t agree with him here. Thinking back to some famous individuals in history I can’t find a single person who has ever been a nobleman. This is, due in part to the fact that the nobleman has neither ever existed nor will this imaginary breed of superman exist. Why you must ask? Because like my mom and me, people will always have some form of sympathy for each other. This is true, simply due to our nature. We are innately connected to others because of our awareness of our surrounding; and, I believe, that it’s not practical to think the human animal can turn that affection off. Maybe this is the view of the herd, and if so, I’m okay with that. So then, what can we do? This answer is simple but the change seems nearly impossible. The herd needs to break free from their reactive lifestyle and embrace death, the one absolute for every living thing. By doing so, people would be on a constant search for a meaningful life over a purpose filled one. In which case, my mother’s reaction would have been different after the news of Brian’s death. Rather than be sorrowful, she would have been reminded that death comes to us all, and life is short, why not make the most of it.

Basis of Existentialism

From what we have talked about in class it seems to me that existentialism is mostly a reaction to the rational, universal, democratic, scientific, and religious view of the world. Everyone we have studied seems to want to reject this view because it is unsatisfying.

Kierkegaard claimed that we can not understand Christianity in a universal, ethical way: God does not have to be rational and one’s religion is not one’s morality. Dostoevsky argued that humans do not make rational decisions, and in fact can delight in their irrationality. Nietzsche points out that when slavish morality claims everyone has a soul and gives everyone equal value, we ignore the genuine ubermensch. Heidegger claims that we are inauthentic when we do not create our own meaning but merely clothe ourselves in the accepted views of society.

But I was wondering why we find this original view unsatisfying. Why do we need to reach beyond what is rational? Why is it so important to us to make our own decisions and meaning?

Is it a part of our human nature in some way? It could be that we have a desperate need to recognize our individuality against others and against what is held to be universal.

I had a similar existential reaction while reading a book about feminist ethics. In the book, the female author states that she believes that no woman could have written Genesis from the Old Testament Bible. She believes this because of the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, which ignores the traditionally feminine value of caring for one’s child above rules and principles. Even though I know from empirical surveys that most women have an ethic of caring and in many ways my ethical views are based on caring, I hate to think that I’m in some way captured by this generalization. I want to think that I could choose to write or believe anything.

It is said that existentialism is more of an attitude than certain, defined beliefs or a logically formal argument. And it seems as if certain aspects of this attitude are shared by everyone. No one wants to live a life devoid of meaning. No one wants to be a “sheep” that just follows the herd. No one wants to “catch” beliefs from those around them like catching a cold. (At least, I think everyone in this class would agree that those things are awful.) Therefore, I think that existentialism is based on an innate part of human nature that craves meaning and recognition of one’s individuality.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

WTF, Nietzsche?

After class on Thursday, I examined Nietzsche’s infamous statement: “God is dead.” I’ll provide a quick recap: In The Gay Science, Nietzsche tells an anecdote of a madman running through a European town, frantically crying “I seek God!” The people sneer at him, sarcastically replying “Does he lose his way like a child?” Finally a man replies to him, “God is dead. We are all murderers.” Nietzsche argues that the Europeans lost their faith in God, and therefore their basis of morality. For Nietzsche, the weak cling to “morality” in an effort to appeal to a Higher power. Humans are naturally weak. They mistakenly believe that they need a God in order to save society from complete chaos. We live ethically for others, for the sake of God, and therefore live by life-denying principles. By saying “God is dead,” Nietzsche implies that, without God, there is no “morality” as we generally see it.

It is true that many devout believers in God live their lives according to some sort of Holy law. The idea of God is comforting. As long as He is “alive” in our minds, there is something worth living for. By behaving morally and having faith, humans are guaranteed eternal afterlife in paradise. In fact, Nietzsche’s claim that we base our morals entirely on God can be used to refute one of Descartes’ arguments in Meditations on First Philosophy. Descartes claims that God’s existence is proven by our ability to conceptualize Him in our mind. But it cannot be that God’s existence is proven by the mere thought of Him in our mind. Rather, the idea of God is something that is a comfort to humans. Believing in “God” makes us feel as though there is a distinct purpose to life. In order to uphold God’s standards and live righteously, we must peacefully coexist with each other and avoid corruption and sin. Simply thinking of Him does not justify God’s existence. I can just as easily conjure up images of unicorns or ogres in my mind, but that does not prove their existence any more than thinking about God proves His.

While Nietzsche does not suggest that humans neglect morality entirely, (rather that we should adopt the “life-affirming” morale, which gives us mainly power and wealth), he fails to recognize a couple of things regarding humans’ benefit from the popular, idiomatic view of morality. First, I believe he overemphasizes the effects of religion on the popularized conception of morality. Religion is not the sole base of morality. God is not the sole motivator that encourages us to do helpful deeds or to live tranquilly among others. Many non-religious people live very decent, ethical lives. Nietzsche, however, condemns religion as the slave-morality, that we only live by ethics in order to please God. For those who are pious in their religion, their belief in God’s existence certainly is influential in determining moral behavior. But it seems to me that morality serves as a mutual understanding among most people that we should not do things that harm or degrade each other, simply to avoid descend into chaos that would arise if we had no concept of the decent treating of others.

Nietzsche groups characteristics such as “generosity” and “compassion” in the weaker realm of attributes, while the “wealthy” and “powerful” are strong. According to Nietzsche, when it comes to morality, we should choose that which is life-affirming (wealthy, strong, powerful) over that which is life-denying (poor, sick). However, it is extremely misleading to put such characteristics in either the “good morals” or “bad morals” categories. Such traits arise from different circumstances in people’s lives; education helps people find careers, people can be fired or laid off from work, people can be affected by life-threatening diseases. These circumstances, however, do not solely determine people’s sense of morality. As a whole, people understand the basic rules of society (don’t murder, defame, or steal from others for example). This understanding helps us function as a stronger community. The general idea of morality is popularized for a reason. Without it, we would degrade into some savage, Lord of the Flies-esque society.

Murder's Benefit: A Test of Morality

In the novel Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky presents a character named Rodion Raskolnikov, who is the murderer in the novel and therefore the main character throughout the story. His main crime is the intentional murder he committed of the old pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna and the second murder of Alyona’s sister, Lizaveta, who walks into the room and is murdered because Raskolnikov panics. Similar to Dostoevsky’s point in Notes from the Underground, he is trying to show that humans are not like “piano keys” and that people can choose to break certain expectations. Murder is not legal or morally right; this is an establishment agreed upon in society and a social fact because people even in a lawless society would agree that murder is not morally correct. However, Raskolnikov breaks this societal establishment by committing murder. Any person has the ability to break the laws, so does Raskolnikov. The murder itself becomes a test of morality for Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov’s real punishment is the psychological torture that he experiences because his mind is dealing with the guilt from immorality for committing murder; therefore, the mind transforms into being something very weak.

My main question is what would Friedrich Nietzsche say about a person such as Raskolnikov? In Nietzsche’s, claim the weak invented concepts such as good and evil, as opposed to terms as such good and bad, to overcome the strong or superior. The term evil also implies that there is some form of morality introduced to societal thinking.

Can breaking societal rules that are so fundamental to the basics of law, like murder which is an "evil" act, make a person who is inferior into a superior being? I am not sure whether harming others would make Raskolnikov more superior than before committing the crime. As a result of Raskolnikov taking the initiative to kill Alyona Ivanovna, who is a weaker being, does that make him one of the superior in society? He could be seen to have an Übermensch complex, which makes him think that he is superior to the rest of society even though he is a part of the “weaker” beings in society.

If Raskolnikov does have a guilty mindset about the murder he has committed, does guilt restrain him into remaining one of the weaker beings in society by causing him not to surpass societal constraints? In contrast, is the benefit of Rashkolnikov’s immoral act of murder that he breaks the barrier of being one of the inferior in society to become a superior being?

Meditative thinking as value creating

As I re-read the section from Discourse on Thinking, I found myself questioning where exactly the distinction between the calculative and meditative methods of thought fits in to the existential movement, and, more generally, my life as whole. Granted, Heidegger implicitly supplies reasons for us, but only as far as saying that the meditative way is better, and that although both are needed in their own way, the meditative is what is "closer" to us. Now, Hugh wonderfully discussed how meditative thought adds meaning to our life, so I encourage reading his post "Meditative Thinking: More Important than Calculative?". I do not think I'll be overlapping with his post too much, so apologies if that occurs!

To continue, I would like to reiterate the metaphor which I brought up in class for the distinction between scientific and meditative thinking, as I plan to draw upon it later. We can think of scientific thinking as simply watching a projector, where we can describe the scene which we are given in a variety of ways. Most importantly, the projector adds meaning to the image, and we are simply an observer which can describe what is given to us. One engaged in meditative thought becomes the projector itself; the meaning of the image is generated by the mind. Rather than take context from the image, the thinker gives context to the image. We might think of this as the difference between describing our classroom as a rectangular space containing twenty some odd people, some desks, a table, and Dr. J and thinking of our classroom as a space in which we have our being as an issue.

Now, I'd like to bring in our old friend Nietzsche to perhaps add contextual meaning to the distinction at hand. First, remember that for Nietzsche the truly "life affirming" values are those values which we have complete ownership over; they are those values which we will for ourselves and which are not herd-ish in any way. In other words, the most life affirming, or noble values are not "good" in the way we use the term today, charged with many religious ties and given to us by the "herd"; rather, only when we create our own values do we truly affirm our own existence. In the Dostoveskyan sense, we are completely free from the irrational and absurd values created by the herd (e.g. that power is evil) only when we scribe our own values according to our natural tendencies for life. To bring our conversation back into the realm of Hiedegger, let us ask how any truly free, authentic, and life affirming individual (take your pick of terminology/author) can exist as such without breaking away from the enslaving and limiting nature of scientific thought and engaging wholly in meditative thought? I contest (and I think our authors would as well) that any individual acting in a scientific manner is limiting his/her own existence. Hugh mentions that this way of thinking draws too much upon the external world, and I think that he is completely right. Consider the "scientific man." He finds himself fallen into a world, enslaved to an initial condition. He then calculates his options based upon that initial condition, and is limited to an equation of sorts, decided by a given and governed by laws uncreated by him. His existence is dictated by the they; they tell him what he can and cannot do. The meditative man, on the other hand, finds himself fallen into world and consequently questions how he came to be in that world. He meditates on the fact that he will at some point cease to be in that world, and he acts based on this realization. Further, insofar as he acts on this realization, he creates his own values; he lives authentically and rejects the dictations of the they because the they dumb down the importance of being-towards-death. Going back to Neitzsche, the meditative man makes his own life affirming values. In being-towards-death, the meditative man liberates himself from the they and from the herd; he becomes the projector by adding meaning to the world in which he finds himself, rather than taking meaning from it and confining himself to the narrow, and often irrational, space which it occupies in the realm of possibilities.

In regards to my own life (I'm sorry that I constantly try to relate what we read to how I should live my life), being "meditative" means making the most of my existence. By thinking meditatively, I take complete ownership of my existence because I create my existence rather than accept an existence fed to me.

Meditative Thinking: More Important than Calculative?

Heidegger creates an interesting distinction between “meditative and calculative thinking” in “from Discourse on Thinking,” one that seems to make a lot of sense to me. In many ways, it seems, we fail to understand, or attempt to understand, the core truth behind elements of our life; in other words, we fail to “meditate,” and instead, only think in “calculative” terms. “Calculative” thought certainly seems to be favored in the modern world, primarily because it is efficient. It leads to definite answers, moving us away from the abstract—a primary goal of the modern world. But this does not seem to convey the full picture, according to Heidegger, because it does not convey the meaning behind our calculations and our lives. This is essential in Heidegger’s conception of complete truth and complete thinking.

This relates, fundamentally, to Heidegger’s ideas on the authentic and the inauthentic: his ideas of how a person can correspond to his world according to individual motives or external ones. When we “meditate,” we consider our being, our singular truths, and the meaning of our lives. We, subsequently, develop a self-derived kind of meaning, a real kind of truth. This sort of truth is what Heidegger seems to imply in his discussion of the authentic. Calculative thinking requires a substantial drawing from the external world, the world of the “they;” it is inauthentic.

Meditative thinking, on the other hand, seems to me to be a more important type of thinking than the calculative; it helps us to understand our life’s meaning, placing significance on the individual rather than the collective. Calculative thinking makes our individual lives less important. It implies that there is a way to categorize everyone and everything in the world, taking away any real free will (in the vein of Dostoevsky). Calculative thinking, then—if taken as the entire truth—makes us entirely mechanistic. It suggests that there is complete, objective truth and order in the world. There would be no free will, because every action would fit into a greater structure.

I recognize the importance of the calculative approach, but not as an equal counterpart to meditative thinking. Without meditative thinking, there is no meaning in the world, only a series of categorizations and analysis. This, it seems, is an empty, bleak conception of human existence, antithetical to existential philosophy and the way in which most of us live our lives. Heidegger makes a great point, here, but perhaps the importance of meditative thinking is even greater than he suggests.

Being being Being being Being being

Heidegger points to death as the only thing that Daseins have as their own. We are constantly being confronted with other beings in the world and are forced to evalute their appearance and so it only makes sense that we would do the same for ourselves. And when confronted with the mortality of others, it seems likely that the mortality of the self would become more apparent. This sort of thinking seems to suppose that my being-in-the-world depends on other beings being-in-the-world. If we were to imagine a world without other beings, with no point of ontic reference (and therefore no ontological reference), then how would we come to understand ourselves at all?

It doesn't seems to me that there is much of a difference between Dasein and Mitsein, between being-in-the-world and the being-with-others. At what time in my life am I not being-with-others? Even when I am alone I have knowledge of the existence of other beings. And beyond that, I am around things that I percieve to be artificial, with designers, manufactuers and possible users which all contain references to other beings (ontic sites that disclose the ontological). Dasein, this being that discloses Being, might just be another way of giving an unidentifable designation, like that of a soul or essence. And perhaps Dasein is not like this because of it's mysterious nature. But if I can not really know what Dasein is, then can it exist at all to me in a functional manner? Maybe the Dasein is just a personal will, the ability to take in all the other beings being-in-the-world and being-with-others (which I really do think is the same thing) and not subscribe to a "they" ethic that can truncate or stifle you as an individual. But it seems that my designation in society, in the being-with-others, is one that allows for very little personal say and is deeply entrenched in the theyness that makes up our world.

So if I am always in the presence of other beings, in both direct and indirect ways, and am constantly confronted by other beings being-in-the-world, it seems as if my greatest source of angst and anxiety would be my own being, because I cannot fully know it, yet am confronted with it constantly. And while my death is my own most possisbility, the end of my Being and the only experience I can never share, anxiety about my own death is actually just anxiety about my own Being because no one, not even me, will ever really know it.

Heidegger and Monty Python

After reading the section from Heidegger’s Discourse on Thinking and listening to the class discussion on meditative versus calculative thinking, one of the first things I thought of was this Monty Python skit,

In this skit, the German and Greek philosophers team up to compete with each other. After the whistle blows though, neither team takes any action and every philosophy is immediately immersed in their thoughts. For almost the entire game the ball is not touched, as the philosophers wander around the field thinking. Finally, Archimedes gets an idea, enlivens the Greek team, and Socrates scores to beat the Germans.

In regards to what we read and discussed today, I think that this skit is a goofy but clever caricature of what Heidegger calls meditative and calculative thought. With the two teams, Monty Python paints a stereotypical portrait of philosophy. All of the famous philosophers have their heads in the clouds, thinking on thinking, expounding great philosophical principles and theories, but with nothing at all to show for it. The soccer match is boring because philosophers are shown to be good for nothing except thinking, while even their thinking is just a fruitless waste of time. Heidegger explicitly addressed this portrayal of philosophical, or meditative, thinking when he wrote that one perspective is that “mere meditative thinking finds itself floating unaware above reality. It loses touch. It is worthless for dealing with current business. It profits nothing in carrying out practical affairs.” Monty Python further drives this point home, that the meditative thinking of philosophy has no practical outcome, by including Archimedes on the Greek team. A mathematician, Archimedes alone has the kind of thoughts that actually do something in the world, and as a result it is Archimedes whose ideas alone carry enough weight in the practical confines of the game to move the rest of the Greek team behind him. As a result, this skit brings out the contrast between calculative and meditative thinking by showing calculative thoughts to have practical results for the world we live in, while meditative is empty of any meaning at all and a waste of time.

Like we discussed in class though, a caricature of meditative and calculative thought does not capture the fullness of them in Heidegger’s perspective. Meditative thought is not worthless or even impractical: as Heidegger claims, “at times it requires a greater effort...more practice...[and] in need of more delicate care than any other genuine craft” (152). While it is easy to lampoon the philosophers as doing nothing that has any relevance for the world in which they live, the ideas of philosophers have had huge impacts on all sorts of issues and have come out in very tangible results.

Maybe another approach from the Monty Python skit, though, is questioning if the study of philosophy is necessary for meditative thoughts. On the one hand, philosophy deals directly with the meditative thoughts and seeks to answer many of the basic and profound questions of existence. On the other hand, it is possible to have these thoughts without studying or majoring in philosophy at all. Philosophy has also been lampooned as a study for the privileged, for the people who are well off enough to have time to spend speculating and theorizing instead of actually doing work. While Heidegger would argue that people who do not care about issues of their Being are this way because there is no language to speak of Being, no practice at this thought, with the result being a though-poor population, another response might be that the people who do care about Being are only people who have enough free time and money to worry about it. Even though philosophers traditionally have not been very well off in regards to wealth, I think it is still an interesting argument that those who can practice philosophy have a certain level of comfort and freedom above some of those who are thought-poor, who do not think about their existence, perhaps as a result of actually being caught up in an every day struggle to continuing existing, without having the time or concern to think about it.


As we were going over Heidegger's Being-towards-death the other day, I began to ask myself what motivates me to act in a certain way. Heidegger would say it is the realization of my own finitude actualized in my death. I would disagree. I would say it is the desire to enjoy or experience things in my life future. I do not go to college because I think I must make something of myself before I die--I do it because I want to enjoy a higher quality of life. Am I misreading my motivation?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On the Existence of God

It seems to me that when one sets out to prove or disprove the existence of God, he often first attempts to define God. While this is logical protocol in most philosophical inquiries, it does not apply in this case. Most definitions cite an all-powerful, all-knowing, and possibly all good being. This is a fairly generic representation that is pretty well accepted, regardless whether it is actually believed or not.

Let us consider what such qualities entail. An all-knowing God knows how many hairs are on your head. An all-knowing God knows how and why chemicals react to each other. An all-knowing God knows how many times you have sneezed. An all-powerful God makes it rain and stop raining. An all-powerful God created life. An all-powerful God can answer any question.

Now, regardless whether there is a God or not, there is still a set and knowable amount of hairs on your head. There are properties that make chemicals react the way they do. You have sneezed a certain number of times, even though neither you nor anyone else knows how many this is. It rains and stops. There is life. There is an answer to any question, regardless if any human knows it or not.

Therefore, whether we believe in God or not, all that we attribute to him is still present. One thing we do not explicitly attribute to God (though it has perhaps wrongly been implied) is self-awareness. I propose that the question is not ‘is there a God?’ but rather, ‘does he perceive himself or not?’ All knowledge exists whether or not it is know to anybody. This is evident in math that we have not yet discovered. In the same token, nature is governed by some force.

What is the difference between God being all knowing and him being the embodiment of all knowledge? Or what is the difference between him being all-powerful and the laws that govern the universe? It seems to me that the only difference is whether or not the body of knowledge and governing force of nature acknowledges itself as God or not.

But this is foolish because there is no way that we can understand what God’s perspective is like. Personally, I highly doubt God perceives himself as God in the same sense that we perceive him.

Thus, God exists as the body of all knowledge and governing force in the universe. Any further attempts to define him (such as his perception or morality) cannot be anymore than stipulation.


Something that is very surprising for me, I find myself not being as confused by Heidegger as I thought I would have continued to be after both class today and a very helpful Precis. (I kind of laugh when I type this part) I think for once, my tendency to lean towards not thinking too hard or trying to be somewhat of a reductionist has helped me out (lazy mental processes basically); although, I may in fact be wrong with everything that I am about to say but, moving on. So in class today, at least for it to make sense in my head, I looked at the ontological Being as somewhat of a separate entity altogether from the ontic first anyway. In class we talked about how the site of disclosure of an ontological Being is by a particular ontic being. When we discussed this in class I looked at ontological Beings as those entities that occupy ontic beings but their "is" is not that of an ontic being. It's kind of like the "spirit" and the "body" whereas many people believe that they are themselves a physical body that houses a spirit. The spirit (the ontological Being) enters (the ontic being) at birth and the ontological Being leaves the ontic at death. That is why the Ontological Being cannot experience its on death because it has left the ontic being. But, discussing this subject, I would like to look at things yet again from another perspective of techonology (as I did with my last blog). Back in the times of Heidegger, I'm sure there were not machines that had the ability to revive victims who doctors believed were not fully gone. I could not find the actual video that I was looking for but I found one similar. It discusses an after death experience where he "so called" experiences his death and comes back to tell of the experience. This resembles somewhat of the teological suspension of the ethical in a sense to where who is to say that an individual was not talked to directly by God, in the same sense for us to say that an individual cannot have an after death experience and be able to come back and tell about their experience of death. Here's the link to the video that I was not thinking of exactly but it serves the same purpose:

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Teleological Suspension of the Universe

Teleological Suspension of the Universe

In our first class topics, we extensively discussed Kierkegaard’s concept of the idiosyncratic individual in relation to the universal ethical and the absolute. The idea that I am only separated from God by an unintentional and archaic sense of ethics and morality infinitely bothered me, so in class I suggested that perhaps it is our flawed systems in being human that should be attributed to the paradoxes in experience that create the particular rather than some profound interaction with the absolute. Professor Johnson then owned me in the face by saying, “Perhaps it is only our idea of truth that is flawed” (or something to that effect). At the time, my only response was “damn” because I had just been destroyed by our teacher. However, I began to think more about our system of truth being flawed and spoke more to Professor Johnson about my ideas and incorporated her statement into further ideas about our flawed human perception.

As an amateur and in writing a four hundred word blog post, clearly this will be a less than half-baked (almost raw) theory, but I hope to convey this concept at least partially. I am attempting to apply Kierkegaard’s Teleological Suspension of the Ethical in relation to our mediation with God to our mediation in understanding the universe and reality. So everyone has heard the argument that maybe green for me looks entirely different than what is green to everyone else, and so on (this can also be attributed to sensations—what pain feels like to me could be completely different for others). Thus, it is fair to say that this indicates such idiosyncrasies in our everyday perception of reality, indicating relativity in the way the individual experiences the universe. We only possess certain methods of relaying these experiences to others. The methods of explaining the phenomena are physics and math. Both of these systems would seem flawed because there are paradoxes in both math and physics. For example, quantum mechanics and special relativity both possess mathematical and experiential evidence in their favor, but it would seem that they contradict one another. So, what I am suggesting is that this does not indicate a flaw in our math or scientific systems, but rather, a flaw in our ability to perceive. A clear example of our flawed ability to perceive would be that of our perception of time. Time is inextricably linked with space in a fabric—time and space, spacetime, the spacetime continuum and other such jazzy terms. So this would make time equal as a spatial dimension (t) that we should theoretically be able to perceive in experiencing reality; however, we can only perceive the “present” (I pretentiously put present in quotes because, if you want to get technical, we can only perceive the past because of the slow speed at which our brains process what is happening to us, placing an absolute reality even more shamefully into the distance). So this system of math and perception would be the universal ethical which separates us from observing the absolute universe. As hard enough as it is to accept and grasp just that part of the argument, I have even more difficulty determining what would in fact be the absolute universe or the God aspect of the model.

I am not a piano key

This video clip comes from the movie, The Truman Show, which critiques a man’s human existence. In the movie, Truman (played by Jim Carey) stars in his own reality television show, yet he doesn’t realize he’s even playing a role. Since he was a baby, a camera has secretly followed Truman’s every action till his current state of a middle age man. The people of the community played the part of supporting actors, while the producers set up scenes that have shaped his life. A few examples include losing his father in a boating accident, where he works, the wife that he married etc. Finally, Truman begins to catch onto the role-playing and the seemingly odd coincidences that occur.

In this scene, his actions seem to parallel our discussion on Dostoevsky. Throughout Truman’s life, he has been played like a piano key. He has followed the exact life that has been placed before him. Once he begins to realize, he is not the one actually making his decisions, but rather they are being made with an audience in mind, he finds a way to not let that happen by employing the most advantages advantage- free will. It is a moment of recognition that he is no longer going to play by the rules, but rather act according to his own motives.

I feel this movie offers a good visual of the exact thing Dostoevsky was trying to defy. What stayed in my mind even after class discussion was his quote from the book, “I am not a piano key.” How often do we act according to how we are suppose to act rather than what we want to do? For Truman, this had been a life experience and when he looked around he realized that is exactly what everyone had done as well. When he begins to go against everyone else, he becomes the only real human throughout the movie. He will not be the calculable object. The remaining part of the movie follows a little like the beginning of the scene- driving in a circle, making a turn, and being stopped in a traffic jam, yet he fights against the grain.

This movie made me first question how often do we experience this kind of realization that things are not as they always appear? How often do we go about doing things, because we feel we are supposed to? Finally, what does it take for us to realize we are making our decisions based on universal truth rather than our own free will?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"Human, All Too Human" (BBC Documentary about Nietzsche)

Here's a short documentary produced by the BBC in 1999. Of course, it only serves as an "introduction" to Nietzsche's many and varied writings... but it's a pretty good introduction.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Rationality of Irrational Behavior

In the selection of Notes from the Underground that we read, Dostoevsky argues that man will act irrationally because in doing so he proves his own free will. He states that it is the most “advantageous advantage” for man to prove that he is not an organism that can be reduced to mere mathematics, that he is unpredictable and at times illogical. This argument makes a lot of sense to me: humans engage in illogical activities because in doing so they validate their freedom to choose and therefore not definable by an algorithm. A good example of this willingness to behave unpredictably merely to validate one’s own free will seems, to me, to be an activity such as skydiving. This has to be the pinnacle of crazy acts, flinging one’s self out of an airplane of your own accord in non-emergency situations and yet a large number of people do it every year. Despite all the danger people still choose to engage in such activities and it is the fact that they “choose” that is most important. The choice is what separates humans from every other organism and object, we can choose to be stupid, and we can choose to put our lives in danger for no good reason at all. People who skydive know that doing so is stupid, it is asinine in every possible way, yet still they do it because doing so proves they can choose even the most dangerous activity if they wish, there is no mathematical algorithm that binds their decisions stating that they will only choose the activity which results the best for them. It’s the ability to behave foolishly that proves freewill. There are numerous examples of irrational acts that people engage in everyday and it would be impossible to map the infinite possibilities of the way in which people act to a simple algorithm as due to mans ability to choose it is impossible to accurately guess how every individual would react. My one problem with his argument is if acting irrationally proves we have free will and we desire free will such that it is in our best interest to prove we have free will, would it not follow that it is rational to try and prove our freewill and therefore it is rational to behave irrationally. I feel I could be wrong about this it just seems that his argument makes irrationality rational.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


I stumbled upon this article, which reminded me of our previous discussion about circumventing the ethical and jumping to the absolute. While this guy did not have a divine revelation, on the simple fact that there was no earthquake, it did stir a few thoughts and questions in my mind. I wondered specifically about the motives of this man and why he would subject himself to jail time, public humiliation, and speculation about his mental sanity. Could he be a victim of Dostoevsky’s preoccupation with asserting one’s free will at the expense of one’s own well being? I don’t think so, because he mentioned it was God’s message that he was relaying to the world. So, he must actually believe he had divine contact, or else he wouldn’t comment or maybe he would if he was acting irrationally.

We tend to dismiss people that do something bizarre as mentally unstable, but only when they do something to catch the attention of many. But not everyone who is mentally unstable engages in behavior based on their impulses. So why would this pastor jeopardize his life in this manner. If his job was just to warn people, shouldn’t there have been further instructions? What are people supposed to do with just a mere warning?

While the story of Abraham is understandable given the premise of God speaking to Abraham, this story is not, because God told him to warn people, not ruin his life. Wasn’t there a way a better way for this guy to follow God’s supposed instructions? Perhaps this man is just that mentally unstable, but to me it is not making sense. Furthermore, this isn’t the first incident of this kind, apparently another man who was classified as mentally challenged hijacked a plane in a similar fashion, which makes me wonder how these 3 realms apply to people with a mental disorder. Are they skewed or do they follow an entirely different pattern. After all, people with mental handicaps can often times make rational choices that sane people make, but a few large scale irrational choice classify an individual as insane. I guess the big question I am trying to get at is, why is it that we as humans are confined to asserting our free will in very controlled and unnoticeable manners? Doesn’t that essentially limit us and confine us to society’s norms and expectations that only allows for a rather small window of actions that are irrational?

Freedom, Expression, and Deadlines. Oh my!

A few classes ago we discussed Kierkegaard’s focus on the relationship between freedom and anxiety. We talked about how taking singularities and moving them to the universal tends to limit one’s freedom. However, this limitation of freedom also limits anxiety, therefore this sacrifice appears acceptable and even advantageous to many, who choose to make distinctions and assumptions relating to the universal realm, remaining complacent with their limited freedom. One thing we did not discuss, however, was the way in which the decisions of individuals limit the freedom of others rather than their own freedom. Is there an unlimited amount of freedom for everyone to express or is there a finite amount, a large pot of “freedom” from which everyone draws, like a cauldron of soup or some other vaguely irrelevant and imperfect simile that serves no purpose other than to draw this blog post ever closer (at an agonizingly slow rate, I might add) to the magic number of four-hundred on the word count tool? Is everyone completely free to maximize their own freedom even if it infringes upon the freedom of others? Being undeniably awake and substantially attentive, I pondered these and other equally substantive thought before definitively concluding that in my opinion, whether or not there is a set or infinite amount of freedom is irrelevant. Either way people are always going to infringe upon and limit the freedom of others, even if it does nothing to maximize or increase their own. For example, I exercise my freedom by playing “Purple Rain” obnoxiously loudly at 4 in the morning with open windows and a cranked volume knob, angrily waking a large portion of the inhabitants of second-floor Robb. In maximizing my freedom, I severely limit that of many others in an incredibly disproportionate fashion. And, in retaliation, the disgruntled, half-awake mob exercise their freedom beat the ever-loving crap out of me (and therefore exercise their freedom to sleep peacefully through the night). This pits my freedom against that of others, an extremely common occurrence. If my freedom is to be truly stretched and increased to its full potential, others will suffer a loss of freedom.
In another example of a different sort (yet still completely hypothetical in its nature), Professor Johnson exercises her freedom by assigning blog posts to be submitted by the end of the week to her class, granting her the freedom to keep her class and assignments on schedule and, to an extent, keep the rampant procrastination of her students in check. However, this limits the freedom of the completely hypothetical students to procrastinate to their hearts’ contents. Such inequalities of the expression of freedom and the limits it creates for others is so common that many of us see it as merely a part of human interaction.


I really enjoyed our end of class discussion the other day, that sent everyone out with the questions: "How invested are you in making your life easier? How much are you willing to limit your belief in possibility?" I found an interesting new article that brought this into an interesting focus in regards to how teachers view the potential of their students, and its effects on education.

Just running on this educational focus for a little, I've heard a rumor that applicants applying to Teach for America are asked the question "Do you think a teacher alone can help a student succeed?" This seems a very Kierkegaardian question in regards to the limiting of possibilities. TFA wants teachers who sincerely believe that all students have the potential to be other than what they are at face value -- poor students,in poor schools, from low income families, with statistically poor chances of doing well in the classroom -- and not teachers who have already formed assumptions and blocked off possibilities on how much their students will be able to achieve. Even though this is just what I've heard, and probably not true then, if the teacher candidate answers the question up above saying "No, I think that educational environment, family, home-life,...are all very important to a student's education as well" the result is that they will not get a position.

More generally, while I understand Kierkegaard's claim that limiting our expectations of other people's possibilities is in a way limiting their freedom to become anything other than we expect them to be, I wonder at what point our subjective truths become objective, or when it is ok to assume possibilities closed.

What are the benefits of allowing everyone we meet the possibilities that they could be or become an infinite number of things, when doing so only increases our anxiety? Unlike TFA, that encourages teachers to look for the best in all of the students, actually being open to all possibilities would mean assuming people could be better than we think they are, but also recognizing that everything might be worse than we can imagine. How much hope would this give to a TFA teacher, though? In their case,if that evaluation question is true, the teachers are people who are encouraged to only think the best, and deny themselves the possibility of the worst, which I think is denying a lot.

For example, if I am going to let myself believe in possibility, I would have as much reason to believe that the people I see could kill me as they could be my friends, could yell at me or pass me by completely. This would provide good reason to be anxious, if these are the possibilities that exist. An alternative might be the middle approach of accepting people as they are without passing any judgment or being anxious, which isn't an alternative that existentialism would be 100% happy with admitting as it rubs against the idea that everyone has the possibility to be anything.

I guess my problem with the idea of opening ourselves up to possibilities, to anxiety, is that the freedom it signifies sounds like a good thing, but it comes at a miserable cost. Opening up to possibilities seems to take away from prospects for happiness, leaving a person warily approaching life conscious that any given moment or person could be either kind or dangerous. Why would anyone want to think of these possibilities, if by instead of denying possibilities to others they may misjudge people entirely, either with good or bad results, but have a lot to gain as far as preserving their personal happiness and well being is concerned? It also seems like the individual who truly accepted the call to be open to all possibilities in others would be the quintessential individual. Anxious, not knowing what to expect of the people and world around them, they would also be very alone since the only thing they could really know and not be anxious about would be their own individuality and nothing else.

The Existential Fall of Man

In Feodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground the protagonist argues that man will on occasion act in a manner that seems for all practical purposes against his best interests. Scientists, he says, will try to dismiss this behavior as committed out of ignorance. However, the underground man claims, “man may purposely, consciously, desire what is injurious to himself, what is stupid, very stupid—simply in order to have that right to desire for himself even what is very stupid and not to be bound by an obligation to desire what is rational” (45). In other words, man may act contrary to all reason for the sole advantage of not being subject to reason. In this way, man may demonstrate to himself that he is free and his choices, however wise or unwise they may be, are the product of his will and nothing else.

The most prominent example I can think of for the rationality of irrationality comes from the book of Genesis. God made only one request of Adam: “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen 2.27). Such a warning from such a being should be sufficient evidence for Adam and Eve to know that eating the fruit is not in their best interest. However, as we all know, Adam and Eve disregard this warning and succumb to temptation.

God provided everything for Adam and Eve; yet instead of being content with this, they knowingly ate of the forbidden fruit. For this reason, I argue that the fall of man is to some extent the direct the consequence of his desire, not to do what is rationally advantageous, but to demonstrate his freedom of will.

In this sense it seems that part of the knowledge of the fruit of good and evil bestowed upon Adam and Eve was, if only indirectly, the conformation of their own free will. Through their blatant disobedience to God’s will they are demonstrating their own. Thus, man’s fall from grace of his own accord seems completely in tune with the underground man’s supposition that “one’s own free unfettered choice” is valued as the “most advantageous advantage” (43).

It is true that the serpent is partially to blame for Adam and Eve’s transgression. However, because God punishes Adam and Eve as well as the serpent, and because God is just, we can assume Adam and Eve are accountable to some degree. They are accountable because, as they learned the hard way, they have the free will to make their own decisions and suffer their own consequences.

Deciphering Nietzsche

Before I begin, let me preface my post by declaring that I know about as much about Philosophy as a four-year-old knows about how to split an atom. This class is the first Philosophy course I’ve ever taken, therefore I have no knowledge of the principles and conventions upholding the discipline. As such, it takes me a bit longer than your average Philosophy whiz to absorb and understand all this information, and even longer to think of constructive ways to criticize it. So, if anything I say in the next few paragraphs sounds like the incoherent ramblings of a drunken maniac, you know why.

In the excerpt from “On The Genealogy of Morality,” Friedrich Nietzsche asserts that the origin of our understanding of the word “good” stems from an aristocratic projection of what he calls the “pathos of nobility,” (79) meaning that it was the lords and dukes and barons of times past who deemed everything they did and enjoyed as “good” while condemning everything else to the realm of “bad.” To support his argument, Nietzsche offers examples taken from various languages and demonstrates the implicit association within these words with “the common,” or “bad,” such as the correlation he draws between the German word for “bad” (schleclt) and “plain” (schlicht) given their one-letter difference (80). Although such a similarity warrants debate and investigation, it seems illogical to use such a connection as the entire grounds for debasing our understanding of a word.

Take, for example, the words “sea” and “see.” The first refers to a body of water while the latter indicates the act of comprehending the visual world. But to use Nietzsche’s reasoning, their near identical spelling indicates that these words share an inextricable etymological connection, right? Of course not. Although Nietzsche has more than enough fodder to purport a philosophical relationship between the ruling class and the development of the word “good,” his attempts to provide concrete evidence of this etymological evolution are questionable at best.

But nit-picky details aside, the overall course of Nietzsche’s argument seems to take an entire amusement park’s worth of twists and turns between point A and point B. Later on in the excerpt, Nietzsche unpacks the concept he terms “slave-morality” (82) where the low, common, and oppressed attempt to reclaim what it means to be “bad” by defining it in terms of everything their oppressors represent. In this sense, slave-morality is nothing more than an inversion of the patrician understanding of the good but from the opposite side of the fence. But such an act of reversal, in Nietzsche’s understanding, is entirely egregious, self-serving, and nothing more than a passive attempt at revenge. “[I]n order to come into being,” Nietzsche writes, “slave-morality always needs an opposite. . . it needs, psychologically speaking, external stimuli in order to order to be able to act at all,--its action is, from the ground up, reaction” (82). On those grounds, Nietzsche dismisses slave-morality as base and unproductive, serving no purpose other than to offer an outlet for the hate-filled powerless.

Wait, hold on. Now here’s where he’s lost me.

At the beginning of the excerpt, Nietzsche argues the aristocratic understanding of “good” as downright “wrong” (79) because the ruling class simply deemed everything they are as “good” and everything they are not as “bad.” As we’ve already deduced, slave-morality employs the same process. But yet, when discussing slave-morality, the nobility suddenly become “triumphant” (82) and filled with “life and passion” (82) while the weak and oppressed are the antagonists, the “most evil enemies” (81) worthy of scorn and contempt. Where did that switch happen? On what grounds does Nietzsche suddenly flip his argument in the opposite direction? Maybe these are some of life’s unanswerable questions, like who in the world thought it was a good idea to create 8 a.m. classes. Or maybe the answer’s staring up from the page at me, but I just don’t have the right perspective to recognize it. Either way, I hope my ramblings haven’t bored you too much and that I’ve instigated some sort of reflection of your part, even if only slightly.

Existentialism in Office Space.

The fact that freedom and choice do not maximize advantages (like we said) and choosing to be irrational makes us human reminded me of the movie Office Space. The beginning of the movie starts with Peter Gibbons following orders within his office and relationships. He is prey to his bosses’ orders, requests, and demands. He seems almost numbed by his mundane life, yet doesn’t know how to break free of the cycle. He goes to a hypnotist at his girlfriend’s request, and the hypnotist suddenly dies, coincidentally, before he can break Peter of the hypnosis. Peter continues life in this relaxed-state hypnosis, and breaks himself of the life that he hates by choosing to do what he wants, when he wants.
While the hypnosis is definitely cinematic serendipity, I think it’s applicable to existentialism and our discussion on Thursday. The average American goes around appearing to “live the American dream,” which is a checklist of a job, a girlfriend, a suburban house, and money; but, the American dream does not factor in happiness. It appears most disgruntled Americans are happy complaining about their desk jobs, while not really realizing the fact that there is more to life than the checklist. Peter, via hypnosis, realizes his unhappiness and makes amends- and chaos- while doing so. He chooses to be a single individual within the universal entity his unhappiness stems from, the company Initech. Peter and his two co-workers, Samir and Michael, completely destroy a fax machine, which they were previously enslaved to- the machine never worked, they constantly complained about it but did not have the power to do anything to fix it, save telling their bosses, who didn’t care enough to do anything about it.
Peter somewhat gains the mentality of the underground man. He wants to prove that he’s an individual. He doesn’t want to go with the company’s grain and grind anymore. While this is disadvantageous to fulfilling the “American dream,” it appears that Peter has already tasted the dream and found it unsatisfying. In the beginning of the movie, he follows all the rules, and is unhappy, bored, and looking for something more. By the end, he chooses to do nothing, and has never been happier. The problem with the underground man is that while he knows that going with the grain gets him closer to truth, happiness, and self-respect, he halts before he finds what path will make him happiest; he is content with living in squalor and pointing out what is wrong with humanity. It seems as if Peter continues along the path; at the end of the movie he is working with a construction crew and still friendly. It would seem a difference between Peter and the underground man is companionship. The underground man alienates everyone he comes across; Peter has friends of like mind who are supportive of his disgruntlement and helped him through his “crisis.”